Grabbeplatz Forever

Düsseldorf was once a darling of the avant-garde scene. Now, a collective of artists and DJs are inking a new chapter in the city’s cultural legacy In partnership with Carhartt WIP

In the music video that accompanies krautrock band La Düsseldorf’s 1983 single Ich Liebe Dich lead singer Klaus Dinger spray paints a heart on the concrete in front of Ratinger Hof, a legendary underground club that was located in Düsseldorf’s historic downtown district. By then, Dinger had been briefly involved with Kraftwerk and founded NEU!, a group that is retrospectively considered one of the founders of krautrock music and a significant influence on a variety of subsequent post-punk and electronic music artists.

Ich Liebe Dich, La Düsseldorf’s final single, is a love letter to the city that gave groups like Fehlfarben, Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft and industrial pioneers Die Krupps their start. While Ratinger Hof has since long gone, Düsseldorf’s historic quarter is still the beating heart of the city’s creative scene – currently fruitful ground for music and art alike. At its core is the compact Altstadt (old town), which hosts two large contemporary art museums – the Kunsthalle and Kunstsammlung NRW – as well as the Kunstakademie art school.

The nexus between art and music in Düsseldorf dates back to the late 60s, when members of avant-garde movements such as ZERO and German Fluxus founded the Creamcheese club. The astonishing venue contained a 20-metre-long bar and 24 televisions lined up on two shelves, broadcasting what was taking place in the "action space" in the rear section of the club. Over the years, this included performances by Pink Floyd, Kraftwerk, Can and German Fluxus artist Joseph Beuys. In the 70s and 80s, punk and new wave musicians found a home at Ratinger Hof. From the 90s to the early 00s, the Unique Club, a former strip club with plushy separées around the dancefloor, provided a cultural bridge between German nightlife and the UK scene.

Flash forward to the present. Tucked into the brutalist structures of Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, the Salon Des Amateurs has established itself as the one-stop-shop for adventurous music. Since its inception 14 years ago, the Salon has given rise to artists such as Lena Willikens, Vladimir Ivkovic, Jan Schulte and club owner Detlef Weinreich, aka Tolouse Low Trax. The latter three sit across from me on the Salon’s long leather seats, occasionally taking breaks from recalling the early days of the club by pulling at their cigarettes or sipping beer.

At first, the Salon acted as the museum’s bar, with parties happening infrequently. Visitors came to have a few drinks and listen – nights rarely ran past 2am. “Gradually, nights became longer and it developed a momentum of its own,” Ivkovic recalls. His face is still rosy from a recent trip to Brazil, where he shared the stage with Lena Willikens at Dekmantel’s São Paulo edition. Willikens, who is now based in Amsterdam, came to Düsseldorf in the mid-2000s to study at the Kunstakademie art school and was immediately drawn to the city’s music scene. She worked as the Salon’s bouncer before establishing a residency from which she launched her international DJing career.

Schulte, on the other hand, grew up near Düsseldorf and started coming to the Salon around 2006, when he was 21-years-old. “One day I heard there was this club where they play music like nowhere else. From my first evening [at Salon] I was hooked,” he says. “There were a lot of nights when only 20 people were there but the flair was always the same.” He equates finding the Salon to an epiphany, as the type of music that interested him didn’t exist anywhere else.

“We always played what we felt was right, any tempo or any style. There's no light show and no smoke machine, so there's no distraction [from the music],” Ivkovic explains. Schulte, the youngest and most excitable of the trio, concludes that in the electronic music scene “the vibe has only gotten freer, and let's hope it stays that way. I was the second generation of Salon-goers and now I can see another generation rising.”

One of the many promising musical projects to come out of the Düsseldorf creative scene in recent years has been the dream pop duo BAR, aka Band am Rhein. Members Christina Irrgang and Lukas Croon – who also plays in the Düsseldorf-based band Stabil Elite – met during an interdisciplinary theatre performance in 2013. They have been making balearic and new wave-inspired music together ever since. When I ask them about the musical status quo in Düsseldorf, Croon says he too has noticed a new generation of artists thriving within the city walls.

“Some incredible DJ talents and bands have come out of the scene recently,” Croon says. “It's nice to see these things are still happening and that what we did was sustainable. It shaped the next generation." Other members of this new school of musicians pushing the scene forward include local selector Lauritz Baudisch and curator of the popular YouTube channel, no obi, no insert. Promoter Kaspar van de Water recently launched Callshop Radio, Düsseldorf’s own experimental online station, while the young label Aiwo records boasts an impressive string of releases from local talent such as Phaserboys, Giraffi Dog and DJ Normal 4 & Bufiman, one of Jan Schulte’s aliases.

“Apart from the Salon Des Amateurs, the Kunstakademie has continuously played a huge role in Düsseldorf’s music scene,” says Nora Zielinski, who DJs and produces music as Die Make-Up. A few years ago the art school kids hosted a monthly party called Single Club, which quickly became well-known outside of the Kunstakademie crowd. “It was one of the only parties that went on for 24 hours, and it always had a theme that was rooted in the arts. Some of these parties took place in the basement of a bowling alley called Aggis Bistro. Pop-up and permanent locations like that definitely influenced the local scene, too.”

Citing forward-thinking, female-fronted electronic music crews like Discwoman and Paris-based collective TGAF as an influence, Zielinski and a few musician friends were disillusioned with what they experienced as a mostly male-dominated local scene. They decided to join forces and launch DIANA, an all-female collective of producers and DJs.

Since their inception only six months ago, DIANA have played at Salon Des Amateurs, the Franzmann youth centre around the corner from Salon, in other cities along the Rhine, and have even secured a gig at Düsseldorf’s Open Source Festival this summer. As DIANA member Leonie Savalas says, “few local promoters realise the issue at hand and make an effort to reach out to women DJs. But if you come to them and advocate for yourself, they listen.” Talking to the group, you get a sense for how collaborative the city really is. Düsseldorf, with its small community of record collectors, one-off venues, and experimental university parties, offers space for artists to grow without the pressures of professionalism and competitiveness commonly attached to larger cities like Berlin.

BAR’s Christina Irrgang says moving to the “cool, angular and architectural” city gave her another perspective. She believes that art dealer Hans Meyer deserves a lot of credit for promoting collaboration between musicians and the art world for over five decades. Meyer is most well-known for bringing Pop Art to Germany, but exhibitions at his gallery – located right next to the Kunsthalle and Salon Des Amateurs at Grabbeplatz – would also feature appearances by bands like Kraftwerk, The Who and Steve Reich. After exhibitions ended, the crowd would head to Creamcheese for a nightcap. It’s this rich history of creative collision, she says, that makes this place special.

“The city is very small, so this interaction across the spectrum of art – whether that’s music, the theatre, visual or performance art – is ever-present,” Irrgang tells me. “Every artistic movement has come into contact with one another here, and that has been passed on again and again. And while you may not even consciously pick that up, you can feel it."

Words: Caroline Whiteley
Photography: Kira Bunse
Music in video: Tolouse Low Trax - Prokery

Carhartt WIP's capsule collection with NEU! is available worldwide on 26 April.